Colonial Girls

colonial girls

Gentry girls had but one job: to find a husband. Historian Cathy Hellier explains the custom.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter. My guest today is Cathy Hellier, a Colonial Williamsburg historian. Cathy, thanks for being with us today.

Cathy Hellier: Thanks for having me.

Harmony: You're here today to share some knowledge of the lives of colonial gentry girls. I think that the lives of youth and girls in particular is a story that we don't get to share that often, it's kind of overshadowed by the great men of history.

Cathy: I think that's true, for a long time there really wasn't much research done on how girls go from being children to being women. So that was one of the reasons I wanted to research that topic. I just felt we didn't know enough about it.

Harmony: One of the points that you made in the article that you wrote for the Colonial Williamsburg journal on the subject, you said the technology is different, but by and large, girls are the same.

Cathy: I think they have a lot of the same issues. I think school, guys, and independence, how do you get your independence? I think for instance school; colonial girls had schooling. It was different then, they didn’t have compulsory education then They didn't have grade levels, they didn't have the extensive amount of education that girls get today. But still, working in that schooling every day was part of their daily activity, whether they liked it or not.

Harmony: What would their school, what would that have looked like?

Cathy: Well, it depended. Girls, and we're talking about gentry girls, we're talking about girls who were kind of in the upper part of society in Virginia at the time. The reason we talk about them is that they're the ones we know about. Girls who were in middling classes or poor girls, they didn’t have as much leisure time, they didn’t have quite as much education, so they left us fewer records about what their lives were like. Their brothers and fathers left us fewer records about what their lives were like, as well.

So when we're talking about these topics, we're really talking about the girls who are a little farther up in society. They could be taught by the same tutors who lived with the family and taught their brothers. They could have a governess who would teach them the rudimentary things that girls learned. So, and they might go to a local minister's school with some of the boys of the neighborhood for a day-type situation. So it wasn't one single pattern. A very few parents taught their children themselves. But there were a few who did.

Harmony: What were they learning?

Cathy: Girls were basically learning the three "r's" reading, writing, and arithmetic. They needed to know how to read, they needed to know how to write, and they needed to know enough arithmetic to keep a household -- to measure fabric, to calculate garden produce, that kind of thing. There wasn't much more than that, although there were some important social accomplishments that they learned.

They had to learn how to dance, that was really important in 18th-century Virginia and in 18th-century England, too. It was a social accomplishment, it was really important to courtship to know how to dance. The dancing master also taught how to stand and walk properly, how to hand things to another person: how to be graceful. So that was really important for boys and girls in the 18th century.

They often learned how to play an instrument. A typical girl-type instrument, something that they wouldn't have to contort their face or stick out their elbows, they seldom played things like flutes or violins, but they would play things like a keyboard instrument, where they could keep their hands low. They played things like guitar – soft, mellow nice instruments for girls. Occasionally they would learn French, we know some Virginia girls who learned French as well. Occasionally they would learn drawing or something like that, but their education was primarily practical with some essential ornamental things thrown in.

Harmony: So when you say it's practical, all of these topics are geared towards preparing them for a career of household management.

Cathy: Yes, indeed. And I've just been talking really about their academic education, but they also had a kind of apprenticeship in how to run a household. Because girls of this status would be expected to have servants or slaves in their household. It was really important that they learn management skills, that they learned how to manage people. They also had to learn the basics of cooking and sewing, both fine sewing and also very utilitarian sewing.

They had to know how spinning was done, they had to know how to keep a poultry-house and a dairy, how to keep a kitchen garden because if they didn't know how to do that, that produce wasn't going to be there for the table for the rest of the year. Those were all really important things for them to know.

That wasn't the academic part of their education, but they would learn that from their mother, if she was living, but if not, from an aunt or a grandmother or someone that could teach them that important part of what they would be doing for the rest of their lives.

Harmony: As they were pursuing their education, the gentry girl's day was very regimented. Can you talk about the schedule of one of their days?

Cathy: It was pretty regimented, especially if they had – and I'm really talking about girls on the plantation, because we know more about their day – but they would get up in the morning and get some schooling before breakfast. Then they would go and have breakfast, then they would go back to the schoolroom. Then they would have an hour or so, maybe two hours off before dinner.

Dinner was served in the middle of the afternoon, 2:00, maybe 3:00. After dinner, they would go back to the schoolroom. Usually they stayed there and worked until it became too dark to see in the wintertime, or around 5:00 during the longer days.

During those couple of hours that they had time before dinner, they could do all kinds of things. They could go riding with their parents or their tutors, riding their horses. They might spend some time inside doing needlework, they could walk in the garden or just take a walk around the plantation. They were usually accompanied by an adult, however, they really didn't have a lot of personal freedom.

Harmony: We talked about the three major concerns of girls, which were school, guys, and independence. What are the concerns of courtship for the gentry girl?

Cathy: Courtship is interesting, because it's very different from modern dating. Today, girls are not really expected to find a husband in their late teens. Girls in Virginia were ending their schooling at about 15 or 16 and then they were on the marriage market. They were sort of what they called "coming out." They would be able to go to public places, go to dances and things like that.

So courtship, the idea of courtship was finding a husband, and not taking too long about it. You didn't have to marry in your teens, but by the time you were through your early 20s, if you weren't married, that was unusual for this class of girl. On the other hand, we really don’t want our daughters getting married before they're out of their teen years. Dating for our girls is really kind of practice in relationships. The whole idea of dating for courtship is kind of different.

Harmony: The third thing you mentioned was independence. How much independence could a teen, or a girl entering into the married state expect to have?

Cathy: In terms of how do you get your independence from your family, that process was again having to do with courtship, because that was the way a girl got her independence then was marriage. Girls who didn't marry usually lived in the household of a brother or a sister, they didn't really live on their own single.

So the way you got your autonomy, in a way, was to marry. Which meant you really didn't have autonomy, because you were sort of under the government of your husband. But being able to choose your own husband was actually a pretty autonomous decision.

One of the neat things about that was that the parents very seldom vetoed the choice that the girl made. If he was of the right social level, if he seemed like a good person, there was really no objection.

Harmony: As you compare, as you study the lives of gentry girls and you compare it to today, do you think this would have been a good life?

Cathy: I think when they were at home, they had a very secure life. They were taught the things that they knew they would need to know. There wasn’t any uncertainty about what they were going to do in life, so in that sense you get a sense of security among girls. Did they have the choices that girls have now? No, they really didn't. because if they didn't marry, they would be a dependent in someone else's household.

Women of that status were not encouraged to go out and find a job, they couldn't really apprentice if you were a gentry girl, so they didn't really have the options that our girls do now. On the other hand, when they married, they knew exactly what they were doing. They were well-trained. They knew how to run a household, they knew how to manage people.

You get a great sense of confidence in these young married women who would just move on to this new plantation and be able to take right over. Many of them seemed quite confident in their abilities at a very young age. I think that when we look at any aspect of the past, it's important not to romanticize it. But it's important also to not say, "Oh, how terrible it must have been."

I think what we need to do is look at how girls then experienced it. Did some feel that they didn't have enough choices? Undoubtedly they must have. On the other hand, as we were just saying, some of them also appear to have been very comfortable with their role in life and the way they were prepared for it.

I think a girl's most anxious time was when she was looking for a husband, because that mapped out the whole rest of her life. She needed to find the right kind of person. Did she have to be madly in love with that person? No, they really didn't feel that that was necessarily important. Compatibility was important, and often love came later.

Harmony: Thanks so much for being with us today.

Cathy: Thank you for having me.